The Limits and Dangers of Scientific Reasoning

Preaching on Creation and Genesis 1 on 6 March (see www.church.org.uk “sermons” – for a transcript) I realized more needed to be said. Here are a few further convictions on “modern science”.

Modern science is science since the Reformation. It was born out of a revolt against Aristotle (the Greek genius and polymath) by many of the Reformers (excluding Richard Hooker, the Anglican Reformer). Some mediaeval scholasticism had so married Aristotle to the Bible that many Reformers felt the Bible was now obscured. Luther put it bluntly: “a man cannot become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle … compared with the study of theology, the whole of Aristotle is as darkness is to the light.”

But was Luther right? Can Aristotle be so easily dismissed? Aristotle believed that for an adequate explanation of phenomena you need to give “four causes” or explanatory factors. Of these four the two that make the most sense for today are the “efficient cause” (say “a carpenter” who makes a table) and the “final cause” (which we would call a purpose, “having something to eat off” – that is “why” the table was made). Two other causes, however, were also felt important to identify for a full explanation, the “material” cause (the “wood” used in making the table) and the “formal” cause (the background concept of “a table”). But such an explanatory model was felt by some to be too constricting. So the Reformers general rejection of Aristotle gave permission to scientists (or “natural philosophers” as they were then called) to ignore these “four causes”. Isaac Newton and the rest of the founders of modern science were now free to have their own simple scheme of primary and secondary “efficient” causes. That is where God is said to be the creator and first cause, but he uses secondary causes to achieve his purposes in the world – natural laws and the like. This is spelt out in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession (V§2):

"Although, in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he ordereth them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently (italics mine)."

Focusing on secondary causes meant more time for scientists to experiment instead of sitting at a desk or in a monastery cell having to think about God, the "efficient" cause, or any "final" causes ("why" as distinct from "how" questions). It was this freedom that contributed to the rise of modern science. Modern science was, therefore, born of two convictions: one that the universe was the rational product of a rational mind, and, two, that the mind of this maker was not bound at every turn by the deductive syllogisms of the scholastics. So the best way for a scientist to determine how the Creator had done things was to turn to nature and examine it carefully. But this new scheme had its problems. Listen to Francis Bacon – a contemporary of Hooker and the first philosopher of modern science (he was writing on the temptations which would indeed be very powerful): "Undoubtedly a superficial tincture of philosophy [he means the new science] may incline the mind to atheism … For on the threshold of philosophy [or science], where second causes appear to absorb the attention, some oblivion of the highest cause [God, the primary cause] may ensue." However, he then went on to say that “a farther knowledge brings it [the mind] back to religion” for "when the mind goes deeper" it sees that these primary and secondary causes are all connected and depend on one another in the providence of God. That is fine if people do go deeper. But the success of discovering secondary causes in mechanics and the application of them in all sorts of technologies has indeed led (as Bacon predicted) to atheism – witness people like Richard Dawkins who, denying “final” causes as well as the “primary” cause, provide inadequate, because partial, and so misleading cosmologies and accounts of origins.

Bondage to the mathematical proof

The heart of the new science was mathematics. So Newton’s great work, following on from medieval scholars, was called the Principia Mathematica – mathematical principles. This contains the statement of Newton’s laws of motion as well as his law of universal gravitation; and because he developed a sure procedure and an agreed way of testing hypotheses, physics became a separate science and its practitioners, by the time of the nineteenth century were called “physicists”. Under Aristotle everything was philosophy; but over the centuries when in any area there was a sure method of procedure and an agreed way of testing hypotheses, you had a new science and the first “… ist” or “… ologist”.

However, because of the success of Newton’s physics, many came to think that not only all science but every field of learning had to have the equivalent of mathematical reasoning to be respectable. They thought everyone should try to model their procedures and methods of testing hypotheses on the methods of physics and mathematics. This was foolish. It was particularly foolish in theology. But this is what one of the Fathers, if not the Father, of liberal theology, Gotthold Lessing (1729-81), together with many liberals ever since, have indeed thought. Lessing was the German theologian who directly influenced the Essays and Reviews of seven English theologians that were published in 1860. This book has been said to mark the start of modern liberalism in the Church of England. The first article in the book was by Frederick Temple, later an Archbishop of Canterbury, and entitled The Education of the World. This seems to have been influenced by Lessing’s The Education of the Human Race. Lessing’s own fame had come from a short piece entitled On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power. In this he argued his famous thesis that “accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason.” The late Professor Henry Chadwick, a great 20th century theologian, said of this essay: “it may be doubted whether any writing equally influential in the history of modern religious thought has been marked by a comparable quantity of logical ambiguity.” That is polite “professor-speak” for saying it is nonsense.

Lessing seems to be distinguishing and contrasting “accidental truths of history” (past events that happened) from “necessary truths of reason” (like the truths of mathematics or logic). He is saying, therefore, that “the truth about the past can never be established by a ‘proof’ such as we can have in mathematics or logic”. But that is so obvious. However, the implied conclusion that has undermined the faith (or the potential faith) of millions, a conclusion still advocated by liberal bishops and clergy together with secular educationalists and government ministers, is this: “We, therefore, cannot be certain about the past and we cannot ‘prove’ that things in the past happened; so, for example, we can never be sure about the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.” Of course, it is an illegitimate position but it is heard again and again (and no doubt will be heard again this Easter on Radio and TV and in the Press).

Sufficient certainty

Yes, certainty comes from proof; and with regard to something in the past, it is reasonable to want to prove that it happened. But to assume that for history there is only one way of “proving”- as in mathematics (or logic) - is sheer nonsense. Mathematics is one thing. History is another. What we have to do is to “prove” things in ways that are appropriate to whatever it is we are trying to prove. Proof in the physical sciences when an experiment works under specified conditions is quite unlike “logical” proof, which is unlike “proof” in a court of law, which is unlike Janet “proving” she loves John. For certainty you need appropriate proof, not proof of a quasi-mathematical sort. Lessing, however, went one stage further. He suggested it was unreasonable to make commitments on the basis of historical facts. Such was the bewitchment of “pure reason” or “logical, mathematical reasoning”. He said this:

“We all believe that an Alexander lived who in a short time conquered almost all Asia. But who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great, permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? ... Certainly not I. Now I have no objection to raise against Alexander and his victory; but it might still be possible that the story was founded on a mere poem of Choerilus.”

There is, of course, not much doubt about Alexander. But as the historicity of Alexander is, usually, of little importance and Choerilus now seems to have lived before Alexander was born (and nothing, if anything, has survived of what he wrote), I, too, would not take a great risk on him. However, the historicity of Jesus Christ will be of supreme importance if he is God incarnate. Furthermore, the New Testament documents have survived as evidence. Christ’s historicity matters. Some risks may have to be taken.

This was the contention of Bishop Butler, an eighteenth century Bishop of Durham. His view was that in practical affairs we have to make commitments on “probabilities”. Certainty only comes afterwards. I commit myself, for example, to a train at London’s Kings Cross station after all the evidence points to the fact that it is the train for Newcastle upon Tyne. My certainty is sufficient. I cannot for ever be “making sure” that the electronic departure board is not playing tricks, or that I am not hallucinating or that the station staff are, indeed, telling the truth to passengers. If I do, I will miss my train. But after York, I am certain I am on the Newcastle train and not the Leeds train by accident. It is the same with fundamental biblical events like the virginal conception of Jesus and his Resurrection leaving a tomb empty. The evidence is sufficient. It is not watertight in a mathematical sense. But we cannot for ever be asking questions. We have to make a commitment on sufficient certainty. That is reasonable. Not to do so is not clever but unreasonable. You become certain in such ultimate areas as you go through life after that commitment. As Jesus said: “If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7.17).


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